Newark’s new superintendent didn’t hit the ground running — he hit it at an all-out sprint.
Days before his official start on July 1, Roger León ousted many of the district’s top officials. Soon after, he assembled a new leadership team, reorganized the district’s central office, and made a series of sweeping promises — to boost attendance, overhaul struggling high schools, revamp summer school, raise test scores, and make the district “second to none.”
But as the dust settles and León hits the four-month mark in office, his bosses now say they want to know the strategy behind his team’s multi-pronged approach. How do the disparate initiatives he has sketched out fit together? And how does he plan to realize his audacious vision for the district — including perfect student attendance and passing scores for every student on the state tests, which no large urban district has ever achieved?
Members of the Newark Board of Education, which voted in May to make León the city’s new schools chief, say it’s time for him to submit a coherent plan with clear goals they can hold him to. While insisting that they continue to support León, some board members have threatened not to approve any more of his funding or staffing requests until he provides them with a written plan.
“Things are coming in piecemeal, and we don’t have any real goals because we’re [only] seeing pieces of his plan,” Board Member Kim Gaddy told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “He articulates his plan from his head, but I have not seen it in written form.”
Until she receives a such a plan, Gaddy added, “I can’t continue to support contracts and employment because I don’t see how it’s connected to this larger picture.”
That is no idle threat. At Tuesday evening’s board meeting, Gaddy and Board Member Leah Owens both declined to vote on any items related to district personnel, finance, and operations. (Board Chair Josephine Garcia also abstained from the personnel vote but did not specify why. She did not respond to a request for comment.)
During the meeting, Owens said she is “very excited” about some of the changes León has made. But she said that she and other members have repeatedly asked León to provide a written strategy with measurable goals, which they can use to evaluate his performance as required annually by state law.
“Without me knowing clearly what the goals of the superintendent are, I cannot appropriately evaluate him,” she said. “And I cannot vote yes even to resolutions and votes that I would normally say yes to.”
All of the items that the nine-member board voted on Tuesday passed. Still, some members who approved the proposals expressed concerns about communication between León and his staff and the board.
In an interview Wednesday, Board Member Tave Padilla echoed Gaddy and Owens, saying that he supports León and the parts of his agenda that he has revealed. He added that León has been “very accommodating” in providing the board with most of the information it has requested.
But he noted that the district’s power dynamics were realigned when the state put the board back in control of Newark’s schools in February, ending a 22-year-long state takeover. No longer appointed by the state with the power to do as they please, the city’s superintendents must now earn the board’s approval.
“You can’t think you’re going to throw stuff out, and we’re going to rubber stamp it,” Padilla said. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Board members have pushed back against León’s proposals before. In June, the board blocked the firing of nine of the 31 officials that León tried to force out, and voted down three assistant superintendents he sought to hire. Some members complained that León had rushed the staffing changes and offered buyout packages without their approval — all before he officially began as superintendent.
At the time, León downplayed the resistance as the board simply doing its due diligence. Undeterred, he continued to move forward with his agenda.
In August, he summoned all 7,000 or so district employees to a meeting inside a sports arena where he offered a glimpse of an intricate plan he crafted with his inner circle of advisors. It involved forming specialized academies inside traditional high schools, rehiring laid-off attendance workers, and reviewing district policies in areas such as grading and discipline.
He also announced three “campaigns” — 100 percent attendance, passing scores by all district students on the state PARCC exams, and “#1: Second to None” — but did not go into detail about what they entail. And he debuted several smaller initiatives, such as an awards program for high-achieving students and a series of breakfast meet-and-greets with families.
León and his deputies discussed some of those efforts at later board meetings. But they have not released the plan in writing, which would allow board members — and the public — to provide feedback and track the administration’s progress.
“It needs to be in one document,” Owens told Chalkbeat. “And it should be something that’s available publicly.”
It’s also unclear what intermediary targets León hopes to hit this school year on the way to his long-term objectives. With one in three students chronically absent last school year, it’s essentially impossible for the district to achieve perfect attendance by June. However, the plan could set an interim goal for this year, such as a specific increase in attendance or decrease in chronic absenteeism, Gaddy said.
“I have to be able to connect your plan to some achievement outcomes for our students,” Gaddy said. “And that’s not asking for too much.”
In addition to a comprehensive plan, several board members said they want more time and information about proposals before being asked to vote on them at board meetings. During Tuesday’s meeting, Board Member Reginald Bledsoe told the board chair that too many items were being added to meeting agendas shortly before votes are held.
“The number of items that have come before this board at the last minute is unacceptable,” he said. “This has never been like this before.”
In a follow-up interview, Bledsoe said the board has had only “minor communication issues” with León and his office, adding that he believes board-district communications have improved under León’s administration. He also said he expects León to present the board with his plan shortly.
“I am hopeful that a written plan is coming soon for this school year from Superintendent León with clear goals,” he said in a statement. He added that he stands by León “100 percent,” because “when he succeeds, we all succeed — our schools, parents, teachers, students and our overall community.”
A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request to interview León. But as he was leaving Tuesday’s board meeting, he was asked to comment on Board Member Owens’ statement that she would not approve his proposals until she receives a written plan.
“I will speak to her about it,” he said.